On front porches, some still divided on Confederate flag

Johnny Cheney, of Summerville, flies an American flag and a Confederate battle flag on the back of his motor scooter Wednesday, June 24, 2015 in Summerville. Paul Zoeller/Staff

Melvin Bunch sits on his porch swing on a humid morning, watching cars whiz by on U.S. Highway 17A.

“I sit out here all the time,” he said. “A lot of people honk as they go by.”

The swing creaks as he sways back and forth on Wednesday, and he makes small talk with Jean, his wife of 51 years, who is perched on a nearby rocker with pink curlers in her hair in preparation for that night’s service at St. Johns Bethel Baptist Church.

The Bunches have lived in their brick home on the main artery between Summerville and Moncks Corner for almost half a century, and for nearly all of that time the American flag and the Confederate battle flag have flown from a white flagpole that stands on their property just a few feet from the highway.

“I feel that I have a right to my heritage,” said Bunch, 71, a native of Summerville and a descendant of a Cherokee Indian. “I have no hatred, no malice, no nothing against any man. I’m not kidding. But if somebody comes to me and tells me, ‘You’ve got to take that thing down,’ I’ll fight them tooth and nail.”

The fight over the Confederate battle flag has reignited since images surfaced of accused mass murderer Dylann Roof posing with guns and the controversial Southern symbol. On Saturday, a Charlotte woman climbed the flagpole of the Confederate Soldiers Monument and took the flag there down. She and a man, also from Charlotte, were arrested and charged with defacing a monument. A new flag was hoisted by Statehouse officials about an hour later.

Tyrone Heyward of Barnwell says he often sees rebel flags flying, like the Bunches’, in front of houses on South Carolina’s back roads.

“Yes, I’m offended by it,” Heyward said. “That flag doesn’t represent me. I’m sure some good people fly it, but if my car broke down in front of a house with a flag, I don’t think I’d go knocking on their door. I’m just not going to take that chance, just like I wouldn’t frequent a business that flew the flag.”

Roof, 21, is charged with nine counts of murder in the June 17 shooting of parishioners at a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

“That boy didn’t use a flag to kill with, but he used it as an excuse,” said Johnny Cheney, 49, of Summerville, who sports a Confederate flag next to the American flag on the back of his red three-wheeled motor scooter, on his car and in front of his house. “He shot them with a gun. It was a hate crime. The flag didn’t kill nobody. It don’t stand for nothing but the South, not hate.”

In December, Bunch stocked up, buying 10 Confederate flags and six American flags at Dixie Outfitters in Summerville. He replaces them about every six months, taking the tattered and faded standards to a nearby Veterans of Foreign Wars hall for proper disposal.

The flag has long been divisive in South Carolina, as people have argued whether the Civil War was fought mostly over slavery or states’ rights. Many white people call it a proud badge of Southern heritage while African-Americans and others often deem it a symbol of slavery and murder.

In the 1900s, it became an emblem of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist groups, and in 1948 was the symbol of “Massive Resistance” by the Dixiecrats.

“Just because the Ku Klux Klan uses it as a symbol of hatred and the other supremacists use it as a flag of hatred, that doesn’t make the flag’s bad,” Bunch said. “It’s the people that’s using it doing that. The flag doesn’t have anything to do with it as far as I’m concerned.”

Danny Dantzler, 37, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, was flying a Christian flag in front of his Harleyville house last week when the killings took place.

The next day, he replaced it with the Confederate flag at half-staff on the pole where he often rotates the Gadsden flag, the Christian flag, the South Carolina flag and the Confederate battle flag.

“I just wanted to show people that it’s mostly good people that fly the flag,” said Dantzler, a former Marine who is now in the Air Force Reserve. “I hate that it got hijacked by a nut job. It seems like every time they interview somebody about the flag, it’s a backwoods redneck racist.”

Dantzler’s great-great-great-grandfather fought for the 24th South Carolina Infantry and was a prisoner of war but “never owned a single slave,” he said. “The majority of the soldiers didn’t own slaves and most people today display the flag out of respect, not out of trying to intimidate people or be racist or anything.”

In 2000, a compromise was struck to move the flag from atop the capitol dome, where it had been since 1961, to a 20-foot flagpole next to the 30-foot Confederate monument on Statehouse grounds.

Gov. Nikki Haley has previously said there was no need to remove the flag, but on Monday did an about-face.

“We are not going to allow this symbol to divide us any longer,” she said. “The fact that it causes pain to so many is enough to move it from the capitol grounds. ... For those who wish to show their respect for the flag on their private property, no one will stand in your way. But the Statehouse is different, and the events of the past week call upon all of us to look at this in a different way.”

She was closely followed by many congressmen, state and local politicians voicing their support of its removal.

It would take a two-thirds majority in both the state House and Senate to remove the flag. The Legislature’s approval is also required to lower the flag, which is why it remained at full staff after Haley ordered the American and South Carolina flags to half-staff.

The Post and Courier has a running tally of where state lawmakers stand on the issue. Also, retailers Wal-Mart, Amazon, Sears and eBay announced they will ban the sale of Confederate flag merchandise.

In a Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey last week, 21 percent of U.S. voters said they believe the Confederate flag should be flown at South Carolina’s Statehouse. Sixty percent disagree and 18 percent are undecided.

“This event, I think, accelerated a process of reflection and rethinking that was probably going on beneath the radar screen for quite some time,” said William A. Galston, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program. “I don’t think a bunch of people who were really committed to flying the Confederate flag woke up the next morning and said, ‘I can’t hold to this position anymore’. ... I think what happened was the people in the middle, the people who had remained quiet even though their doubts were growing, were suddenly in a position where they had to ask themselves, ‘Where do I stand?’ A bunch of good folks said, ‘I can’t stand with the status quo anymore.’ ”

While the debate rages on in Columbia and plays out on several social media forums, in Moncks Corner, Bunch and his wife continue to fly their flag.

“People fought and died under that flag,” said Jean Bunch. “As far as having any prejudice or hate toward any other race, we really don’t. I hope that one day, no one will see color. If we all get to heaven, it won’t matter if we’re white or black. We’ll all be there together.”

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.